All leaders are salespersons. Though they may not be peddling a product, leaders are selling a picture of what the future could be and should be. They seek to persuade others to buy-in to a particular vision.

Unfortunately, skepticism toward leadership abounds throughout society. Every year since 2004, Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, in conjunction with Merriman River Group, has compiled the National Leadership Index (NLI) to gauge the public’s confidence in its leaders. In 2011 Americans’ confidence in their leaders hit its lowest point since the NLI’s inception. As a matter of fact, Americans have a lower opinion of their leaders now than they did immediately following the corporate scandals and financial meltdown of 2008.

All Leaders Are (Used Car) Salesmen?

Given how jaded people have become toward those in positions of authority, leaders face a stiff challenge in persuading others to link up with their vision. In today’s climate people distrust the motives of leaders, disbelieve their promises, and are inclined to second-guess their decision-making. Increasingly, people perceive leaders as having the same detestable qualities as the stereotypical used car salesman: self-interestedness, underhandedness, and manipulation. 

Leaders inevitably must convince others to support their vision and/or decisions, but how can they gain influence with followers who hold them in suspicion? In short, how can leaders be persuasive without being manipulative? Let’s examine three primary ways in which leaders behave manipulatively, and then look at three alternative means of persuasion.

Tactics of a Manipulative Leader

1) They misuse or abuse power

Leaders generally enjoy a positional advantage over their followers. That is, they have the authority to issue rewards or mete out punishments. Leaders abuse their power when they tilt the structure of incentives to secure personal advantages or to enhance their own prestige. For example, they may reward unethical behavior if it brings them financial gain, or they may leverage their power to sully the reputation of a subordinate who frequently disagrees with them.

2) They fabricate or withhold information

Leaders manipulate people through misinformation. The past decade has witnessed corporate scandals in which executives have fudged numbers or completely “cooked the books.” Yet, most manipulation happens far more subtly than financial fraud. Leaders may simply mislead their constituents by accentuating the positives of an arrangement while hiding its drawbacks.

For example, a used car salesman may not tell outright lies about the mileage or features of an automobile. However, he may cover up aspects of the vehicle’s history such as accidents or flood damage. Hence, the resonance of the advertising slogan “Show me the Carfax!” 

3) They prey on the emotions of others

Manipulative leaders generally are not blind to the needs of others. In fact, the most deceptive leaders are keenly aware of the wants and aspirations of their people, and they use this knowledge to control others. To increase their influence, they appeal to hopes and fears while downplaying reasoning and logic.

Tactics of a Persuasive Leader

1) They leverage power to serve and empower others.

All too often organizations treat their employees as if they should be thankful just to have a job. However, great leaders earn support by developing their people. Such leaders proactively serve as mentors, networkers, equippers, and coaches; they are always on the lookout for ways to empower employees to grow toward their potential.

With respect to those following your lead, ask yourself: “What’s in it for them?” That is, what do they stand to gain during the process of pursuing the vision of your team/organization?

2) They speak truthfully, even when the truth hurts.

In the long run, people trust leaders who help them discover the truth, even if it is uncomfortable initially. Often, the shortest path to a trusting relationship crosses through some feelings of discomfort. The truth isn’t always pleasant. Leaders help people to get past temporary discomfort and to move toward decisions that will benefit them long-term.

What unpleasant truths does your team presently face? Have you forthrightly informed your team about the unpleasant aspects of your current reality?

3) They underpromise and overdeliver.

Eager to close a sale or secure a commitment, leaders have a bad habit of promising more than they can deliver. By overpromising, they create unrealistic expectations, set up others for disappointment, and ultimately lose respect. The best leaders have self-awareness of what they can offer, and they refuse to enter into agreements based solely on optimism or best-case scenarios. Leaders not only are dealers in hope; they also have the wherewithal to ensure that the hopes they engender are not disappointed.

What promises has your organization made to its customers or clients? Are you meeting, exceeding, or failing to reach the expectations created as a result of those promises?

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